Many Buddhists in the west, whether practicing in traditional lineages or as secularly inclined Buddhists, recognize that responding to the suffering of individuals and to the myriad social problems that we face (e.g., racism) needs to be an integral part of our path. Without such social engagement, the individual transformation that we seek, including greater happiness and a sense of fulfillment, will always be limited and incomplete. In this view, individual and social transformation are mutually connected and dependent on each other.
Among socially engaged Buddhists, there is, of course, a wide range of activities, from providing counseling, meditation, and support to individuals, to joining with others in political movements to challenge systems of exploitation and oppression. In this article I want to focus on social engagement directed at addressing social and political problems based on a progressive, political perspective. In particular, I explore the specific ways in which Buddhist insights and values can enable Left political activists to sustain their activity in various movements and to make a positive contribution to the organizations in which they participate. I then provide some specific guidelines for how activists can participate mindfully in meetings so that they contribute to a healthy organizational culture and help to advance shared political goals.
Buddhist perspectives on human suffering and social transformation
Buddhism offers an analysis of the cause of and remedy for suffering that is missing from Left political perspectives such as anarchism and Marxism. These Left perspectives primarily focus on the ways in which socio-economic and political institutions cause harm to individuals, including how they promote selfishness and aggressive behavior. This is an essential aspect of social suffering, but it is not a complete account. While much human suffering is caused by exploitative and oppressive institutions in a capitalist society, Buddhism highlights another source of human suffering, which comes from how we, as human beings, understand and relate to our experiences in the world. This source of human suffering exists in all kinds of societies and would continue to exist even in a democratic socialist society.
Buddhists argue that the root cause of the suffering that we experience resides in our proclivity to relate to what we experience in life – other people, events, natural objects, etc. – in a reactive, non-mindful, and ego-centered manner. Buddhists have a shorthand way of describing the negative mental states that cause suffering: greed, hatred, and delusion. These ‘three poisons’ of human life create the basic problems that we face as human beings.
How do greed, hatred, and delusion cause suffering?
- According to Buddhists, greed and hatred come from the human tendency to ‘cling’ or relate to what we experience in a reactive way, based on the desire of wanting something (greed) or wanting something removed (aversion, hatred). When we relate to our experiences in this manner, we are bound to suffer. On the most basic level, we can’t always get what we want and even if we get what we want, we will only have this for a temporary period of time, given the changing nature of life. And just because we don’t want something, doesn’t mean that it will go away. We simply don’t have that kind of control over our existence. So, if we stay rooted in clinging, in greed and/or aversion, we will inevitably be dissatisfied, unfulfilled, and unhappy. Consequently, insofar as we are dominated by greed and hatred and thus feel dissatisfied, we will be more likely to treat ourselves and others badly; we cause ourselves and others harm.
- Fundamentally misunderstanding our experience, being deluded, is closely linked to the tendency to cling and thus to suffer. We remain stuck in the reactive states of greed and hatred because we fail to understand that these states actually cause us suffering rather than providing us with any lasting happiness. We have a false view of what makes us happy.
- At the same time, we tend to have an incorrect or delusory understanding of our relationship to the natural world. Just as we mistakenly believe that we can gain happiness through clinging, we normally fail to understand two basic aspects of human experience: that what we experience is always changing (the pervasiveness of impermanence); and that we humans are not separate, isolated beings but are interconnected and interdependent with other people, other beings, and the natural world. When we don’t recognize the reality of constant change, we are bound to be disappointed and distressed because we can never attain a permanent hold on happiness; life is just too changeable for us to have that kind of control. And because we normally see ourselves as totally separate from others and focus just on our own needs, we often don’t recognize that we are intimately connected with other human beings and the rest of nature. This mistaken or deluded view of the self leads to self-centered behavior and the false notion that we can control the events in our life. This, too, causes suffering for ourselves and others.
Our tendency to suffer because of greed, hatred, and delusion is both a ‘built-in’ or biologically evolved aspect of human beings as well as rooted in deeply habituated patterns of behavior and thought. However, we have the capacity to counter the three poisons by cultivating a comprehensive set of insights, virtues, and emotional qualities to live a more fulfilling life and to create a society in which all human beings can flourish. The path to human flourishing is based on the cultivation wisdom, meditation, and ethics. Wisdom is the ability to understand the causes of suffering and the remedy for suffering. Meditation involves the cultivation of mindfulness – maintaining a non-reactive, moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment – and the ability to focus our minds in a tranquil, collected way. Buddhist ethics is based on the values of care and non-harming; from that stance, Buddhists aim to cultivate four emotional qualities: a sense of loving kindness or universal friendliness, compassion, joy for others’ well-being, and equanimity, the ability to be non-reactive and tranquil in the midst of life’s ups and downs.
While Buddhism is often equated with meditation and mindfulness in the U.S. and other western countries, the Buddhist response to suffering is broader and multidimensional; it also includes an ethical dimension and gaining wisdom about human existence. The Buddhist Eightfold Path encompasses the eight factors or aspects of human life which help us cultivate meditation, ethics, and wisdom.
So, just as Marx and others identified a source of human suffering (class relationships) and a remedy (the capacity of working people to unite and create revolutionary change), Buddhism also doesn’t just identify the cause of our difficulties. Through the Eightfold Path, Buddhism provides a guide to how we can lessen the suffering we cause ourselves and others. As a concise summary of this process to promote human flourishing, we can say that Buddhism’s remedy for social suffering is the cultivation of mindfulness, understanding our interconnectedness, and being compassionate in everyday life.
Applying Buddhist insights to political activism
So, how do these insights apply to the work we do as political activists and the overall movement for social justice?
Buddhism’s focus on the value of mindfulness, interconnection, and compassion facilitates our sustained activism and the political projects that we engage in.
- By developing our capacity through meditation to be mindful and non-reactive to what we experience while grounding that mindfulness in an ethic of care and non-harming, we are better able to engage in political movements in a productive way. By cultivating mindfulness and compassion, we have a greater ability to deal with the ups and downs of movement activity, to keep focused on our strategies and ultimate goals, and to be patient and persevere in our efforts.
- Based on the notions of interdependence, impermanence/change, and compassion, Buddhism offers a worldview which fosters sustainability and mindful planning instead of the ‘grow or die’ philosophy and the consumption machine that is capitalism. Buddhism and socialism are complementary perspectives which enable us to envisage a new socio-economic model based on cooperation, democracy, and ecological sustainability.
- Buddhism offers skills and insights to counter overwork and burnout, a widespread phenomenon among radical activists. Buddhists understand that, given the interconnected and changing nature of life, we don’t have complete control over events and the results of our efforts are often not as we wished. What we accomplish will crucially depend on the efforts of our fellow activists and all the ‘causes and conditions’ that provide the context for our activity. At the same time, when we lose sight of these insights and have an overly self-absorbed focus on my role and my efforts to achieve social change, we are likely to cause ourselves and others to suffer, to be harmed. We get burned out or begin to lose sight of what our goals are. Recognizing our limits and lack of control, and the need to cultivate mindfulness and compassion, East Bay meditation teacher Mushim Patricia Ikeda, in her Great Vow for Mindful Activists, urges practitioners to say: ‘Aware of suffering and injustice, I am working to create a more just, peaceful, and sustainable world. I promise, for the benefit of all, to practice self-care, mindfulness, healing and joy. I vow to not burn out.’
- While anger as a response to social injustice and harm is natural and is an important impetus to engaging in radical politics, activism based mainly on hatred – particularly hatred toward our opponents – often has negative consequences. We can easily become overwhelmed by the anger and give up on doing anything or our activism can become less about an appropriate response and more about meeting our need to express that anger. We can learn to recognize the common humanity of our opponents on the field of conflict and not demonize them while still being steadfast in our fight against their actions, aware that the system of capitalism is our true enemy and that demonizing its adherents often drives away more potential allies than it attracts.
Practical suggestions for integrating Buddhist insights and values into political activity
How might these Buddhist understandings be integrated into the practical work of political movements?
There are several areas where Buddhist insights and values could be fruitfully applied, including how political activists communicate their views to others (allies, opponents, etc.), how to ‘frame’ key issues, and determining which issues are most important.
On a more immediate, practical level, however, Buddhism’s emphasis on mindfulness and compassion can be actualized in the context of meetings: what we do beforehand to prepare for meetings; what happens at the meetings themselves; and our post-meeting assessments.
Before the meeting: suggestions for cultivating mindfulness and compassion
To participate in a meeting in a productive way requires us to ‘check our egos at the door’ so that we can work in a democratic and productive way with other meeting participants. We need to be aware of what our contribution can be and how we can promote a sense of teamwork and camaraderie. We need to be centered and authentic. We also need to be able to focus on our common objectives.
Although the following guidelines would be helpful for anyone involved in meeting, it’s particularly important that leaders and meeting facilitators prepare for meetings not just by developing agendas but by becoming more conscious of their attitudes, intentions, and feelings. Prior to attending a meeting, each leader or facilitator should give themselves a few minutes to ‘center’ themselves and reflect on the upcoming meeting. The following checklist of practices and reflections will foster mindfulness and compassion in individuals before they participate in a meeting:
- ‘Check in’ and center yourself. Sit quietly for a moment and take a few deep breaths – then, ask yourself:
- What am I feeling in this moment? Hope/Anxiety/Fear/Anticipation
- Is there tension in my body? Where? Breathe in and out slowly a few times…
- Am I bringing any anger or resentment into this meeting? Why?
- Reflect on the importance of contributing to a productive and respectful discussion at the meeting.
- How can I make a positive contribution to this meeting?
- What are the common needs and goals I share with other meeting participants?
- Remember that my perspective and attitudes may not be shared by everyone else. Each of us are shaped by different experiences and identities.
- Remember to distinguish disagreement with someone’s view from anger at that person’s character or nature.
- Consider what you would like the meeting to accomplish. What would be a good result? But keep in mind the following:
- We rarely can control the outcome of any activity.
- Working together with others can often be difficult, even with the best intentions of all.
- It’s important to note and be grateful for any progress made during the meeting.
During the meeting: suggestions for cultivating mindfulness and compassion
Many activist organizations have developed a set of community guidelines which lay out agreements on how group members should function within a meeting. In general, these guidelines aim to promote respectful discussions, inclusiveness, and kind speech. It’s important that these guidelines not just be words on a paper. Rather than just note their existence, the meeting facilitator should discuss the guidelines with the participants and emphasize the following points:
- We are all together in a common struggle and goal, whatever our different views, experiences, and groups that we’re part of.
- None of us are perfect or have all the right answers. We have to help each other out.
- How we treat each other at the meeting should reflect the kind of society we want to create – participatory, inclusive, respectful, and democratic.
If appropriate, the facilitator might include a moment or two of silence to reflect on these points before proceeding to other agenda items.
In the body of the meeting, facilitators should gently intervene if the community agreements are not being followed and restate the importance of abiding by them.
At the end of the meeting, the facilitator should ‘check in’ with the participants to find out how they feel as the meeting is ending, with particular emphasis on the process of the meeting.
After the meeting: suggestions for cultivating mindfulness and compassion
Leaders and meeting facilitators typically discuss how meetings have gone as part of an ongoing assessment of projects and activities in regularly scheduled leadership meetings. In some cases, there will be a formal ‘debrief’ which examines in some detail various aspects of the meeting.
Such discussions should also include consideration of the process of the meeting, in particular, whether the meeting participants abided by the community rules of agreement and whether the meeting helped to:
- Foster a sense of connection and community among the participants
- Expand participation by individuals and groups that had been less involved or perhaps marginalized
- Highlight the common objectives and goals of participants
- Cultivate tolerance, openness, and mutual respect
In addition, leaders and meeting facilitators should take a few minutes to do their own assessment of the meeting – not just the results of the meeting and the items listed above but their own role in the meeting. In this regard here are some important points to reflect on:
- What was my role during the meeting? Did I play a constructive role?
- Did I exemplify the guidelines for a respectful discussion?
- Did difficult feelings come up for me during the meeting? Was I aware of this during the meeting? How did I respond?
- Do I need to change the way I interacted with others?
These suggestions for how political activists can incorporate mindfulness and compassion into their participation in meetings is just one way in which Buddhist insights and values can help sustain activism and promote a healthier organizational culture. As suggested above, there are other areas where Buddhism has much to offer and these should be explored as well.
Through an emphasis on mindfulness, compassion, and a recognition of our interconnectedness, socially engaged Buddhists can play an important role in helping political movements avoid some of the problems which have been so pervasive in Left groups – membership burn-out, organizational dysfunction, and debilitating internal disputes. As much as the success of political movements depends on their programs and policies, as well as its leaders’ organizational skills, creating and maintaining organizations which embody key Buddhist insights and values is just as crucial.
 These points were initially developed by Travis Donoho in an essay on the website of the Democratic Socialists of America’s Religion and Socialism Commission – https://www.religioussocialism.org/mindful_in_the_struggle_what_buddhism_brings_to_socialism. I have revised and expanded on Travis’ points.
 The Democratic Socialists of America’s community guidelines for meetings can be found at https://www.dsausa.org/organize/respectful_discussion/